The Indian Grand Prix is the latest in a long line of new
venues on the F1 calendar - but can the new arrival succeed where others have seemingly
failed and create a new audience for the sport?
Korea, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Turkey, China, Bahrain and
Malaysia are all new nations that have all tried to embrace Formula One over
the last 12 years, but only Singapore has truly succeeded in generating the
kind of crowds that are needed to sustain the events themselves.
Turkey has already dropped off the calendar, Bahrain is
hanging by a thread and Korea's low crowds have raised questions over whether
it will last until the end of its 2016 contract. Malaysia is the longest
running race of the 'newbies' but after good crowds in the early years the
stands are often now empty. The same has happened in China, while Abu Dhabi,
despite hosting the season finale in a ridiculously spectacular
state-of-the-art venue, failed to sell out to a full crowd.
The first pitfall for many of the new venues has been
location - Korea, for instance, is 250 miles away from the capital, the
Istanbul circuit in Turkey is about two hours away from the city with the only
access via a very busy bridge, while the tracks in China, Malaysia and Bahrain
are also all a trek from the city centre. Singapore, however, has succeeded
because it is bang in the heart of the city, taking the race to the people
rather than trying to draw them out.
Simple demand theory dictates that when you do not
already have an audience that desires your product, you must get it into their
hands and minds before they will go out of their way to seek it out.
It is, of course, hard to locate a track close to a
built-up city without it being a street circuit, but some of the new venues,
including Korea and Turkey, have deliberately tried to use F1 to invigorate an
area away from the main population, without having an F1 audience in the first
It's like building a table tennis centre in the middle of
the UK and expecting crowds to flock there to see the sport's biggest stars,
none of which have a strong connection with the potential audience.
Drawing the crowds to the venue, however, is only part of
the focus, with television ratings now more important than bums on seats. A
national race is clearly an important element to inspiring that national
audience, but there needs to be something more.
Again, traditional commerce makes it clear that making a
breakthrough with a product requires your audience to have a connection - and
that takes time, no matter how good or well known you believe your product to
Plonking an unrelated event in a new country and trying
to make people watch it is clearly much easier when there is national
In China, a country of 1.34bn residents, the biggest TV
viewing figures F1 attained in 2010 was 15m. That audience is tiny compared to
the record 110m that tuned in for the China Open snooker final between Ding
Junhui and Stephen Hendry in Beijing in 2005 - a figure achieved thanks to the
ingredients of a nationally popular playable sport, a successful national
player at the top of the game and a national event.
Of the new nations, only Malaysia has had a national
driver - Alex Yoong - or a national team involvement - with one of their
biggest international businessmen Tony Fernandes running Caterham Lotus, Proton
involved with Lotus Renault through Lotus Cars and Petronas major backers of
With Yoong failing to make it beyond the back of the grid
and no truly nationalistic drive within the team connections, however (perhaps
if Lotus used its other name, 1Malaysia, it could have stirred up some national
support) that national connection has failed to ignite a following.
India, however, appears to have answers for many of these
issues - which is why, despite failing to sell out for its first event, it
should be a success in the long run.
Although Narain Karthikeyan will be racing an HRT at the
back of the grid and Karun Chandhok will only be taking part in practice for
Lotus, their presence has given the event the opportunity for nation-relevant
pre-event publicity, which they have done all they can to maximise.
Making the sport part of everyday life, however, is the
only way it will reach out to the masses in the long term and India has two
team-related opportunities to do just that.
Vijay Mallya, owner of Force India, has already used his
nationally known brand Kingfisher - an airline and a brewery - to feed F1 in to
a large audience while one of the country's biggest brands, Tata, which sells
everything from cars to energy, has leverage as a Ferrari sponsor.
In fact, if viewing figures are to be believed, F1 has
built an audience of 68m viewers since it was first televised in India in 1993,
and it has doubled since Force India arrived in 2007, making it the second most
watched sport after cricket.
If brands like Kingfisher and Tata do push to promote the
sport through connection with their customers, F1 could quickly become embedded
in the public conscious.
The next barrier, however, is a lack of genuine grass
roots motorsport and the funds required to get involved in the sport, which
many of general population simply do not have.
Three generations of the Chandhok family have been
working to grow motorsport in the country, but with limited success. There is,
however, a growing middle class within India (reportedly 300m within the 1.2bn
population) who will increasingly have the budget to support take up of motor
racing as an active sport, and having an F1 event can only help drive this
So with strong viewing figures, a national team, a
national driver and some commercial drive, F1 arrives in its next new
destination with some solid foundations - and this time it's got a good shot at
building on that...